Twenty-eight years later, Puneet Issar is still known by the character he played in BR Chopra’s television series, Mahabharata. He is confident that it’s going to change. “For the next 25 or 30 years, people will know me not only as the Kaurava prince Duryodhan but also as the king of Lanka, Ravan,” he says, referring to his new play, Raavan ki Ramayan, which will be staged at Kamani auditorium on Saturday and Sunday. It is a thing with Issar that he talks with his whole body, from eyes that bulge with conviction to arms that dance when he is making a point. Forced by a downpour to take a break from his rehearsal, Issar speaks about gods, heroes and how a demon king is also human.
Do you choose to play anti-heroes or have you been unfairly typecast?
I was originally offered the role of Bheem in BR Chopra’s Mahabharata. I was six feet three inches and had the kind of body that they wanted for the powerful Pandava. I told them that I wanted to play Duryodhan and they said, ‘Are you okay? Everybody who comes here, wants to be a hero.’ Duryodhan was not a villain for me. He was the hero of a classic tragedy, just as Ravan is.
We’ve had plays such as Ravanama by Maya Krishna Rao that subvert the narrative of the Ramayana. What is the approach of your play Raavan ki Ramayan?
Written by Atul Satya Kaushik of Films and Theatre Society, a Delhi-based arts organisation, the play is story of the epic but seen from the perspective of Ravana. Ram, who has completed his education, has returned to Ayodhya and is ready to become the crown prince. Those days, Ayodhya was not doing well as a kingdom. Dashrath had become old and Ram realises that he must make his kingdom prosperous. That’s when he hears murmurs about a kingdom in the south called Lanka, which was covered in gold and whose ruler was a statesman. At that time, Ravan is at the height of his power and he is planning to bring Shiva to Lanka. He says, ‘I’m your bhakt and you must leave Kailash and come to Lanka to stay.’
What is the process of preparing for this role?
I have always been a reader of epic literature and works that have been derived for it. I know Jayadrath Vadh by Maithili Sharan Gupt by heart. The physical and emotional preparation involves going deep into the character and trying to understand the person. Why was Ravan so angry? For this, we had to understand the history of gods and asuras and how the latter were always oppressed by the gods. Ravana was half Brahmin and half asura and, consequently, he was learned as well as violent. To understand an antagonist, it is very important to go into his world.
Have you played Ravana before?
I had done a Telugu television series called Sri Bhagavatam in which I had played all the negative characters Hiranyakashipu, Mahabali Chakravarthy as well as Ravan. That came out in the early ’90s, just after Mahabharata. It was amazing and very well-researched. This Ravan will be very close to that.
How different is your Ravan from Duryodhan?
Ravan was das kala sampoorn (comprising 10 celestial degrees). He was a very wise man, very educated, he had invented many things, he was the creator of the veena. He had created the game of chausar so that his wife, Mandodari, did not get bored and she would beat him every time at it. How did he have a fall? How did he make a mistake? He was a complex character. Duryodhan was simpler, he was an obstinate man, very child-like. He said whatever came to his mind. If he wanted something, he had to have it, if he didn’t like something, he didn’t bother. Ravan was not like that. He was a serious person, he does abduct Sita but, at the same time, he does not even touch her. I am at the right age to play Raavan. I am in my mid-50s. I was in my early 20s when I played Duryodhan.